It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.
David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!
With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.
It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.
In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.
Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.
The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.